Secondary exposure to asbestos continues to cruelly claim the lives of the unsuspecting wives and, sometimes, also the daughters of men who worked in industries where asbestos containing materials were commonly used. One recent victim of mesothelioma caused by secondary exposure to the deadly fibre dust is a 79 year old widow who would handle the asbestos-contaminated work clothes and footwear her husband removed for cleaning every day he returned from work.

The daily ritual of shaking the dust from jacket linings, trouser turn-ups, work boots and hair followed by sweeping the fibre debris, which settled on the floor is a familiar story that has been frequently heard in courtrooms over the years. The victim’s husband had worked as a labourer at a W. Yorkshire factory in the 1970s and 1980s, just as the first UK ban on the most toxic asbestos types was being introduced in 1985.

During Britain’s peak asbestos-using period from the 1940s to the late 1970s and early 80s, many workplaces simply had no washing / showering facilities. Most employees and their families were also unlikely to have received any health information or supplied with safety equipment and consequently, it’s not surprising that asbestos awareness of the fatal health risks was non-existent.

Family members with mesothelioma can succeed in claims

Mesothelioma claims for secondary exposure have traditionally been more difficult simply because the sufferer has not been directly exposed to asbestos at the defendant’s workplace. Defendants can be reluctant to accept liability for any negligence, which indirectly led to the secondary exposure to asbestos fibres. When prosecution cases were brought to court, an employer defendant would argue that “it was not reasonably foreseeable” that a wife washing her husband’s dust covered work clothes would herself be likely to become a victim of the incurable cancer.

A period of between 15 and 50 years or more can elapse before the early signs of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms appear. The wife was only diagnosed with mesothelioma nearly forty years after her husband (who had passed away three years earlier) had brought home his asbestos-soiled work clothes from the factory.

Today, it is established in law that family members who suffer with mesothelioma can succeed in claims against the employer where they are able to show that the employers should have been aware it was foreseeable that the workmen would go home with asbestos on their clothes.

In the last thirty five years, the number of mesothelioma cases has risen in the UK by almost four-fold and since 1970, a threefold increase has been reported in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65.

“Secondary exposure” increasingly visible

The numbers of former workers employed in heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, power plants, foundries, railway engineering, vehicle assembly or building where asbestos was in frequent use are rapidly declining. Consequently, cases of “secondary exposure” suffered by their remaining wives or daughters have become increasingly visible, resulting in female victims of mesothelioma more prominently reported in the press.

The deaths of around 1,200 women since 2008, have been attributed to both environmental and “secondary exposures”. Despite of the earlier ban, white asbestos was still allowed to be used and around 25,000 tons was still being imported until a final ban in 1999.

A 2013 report by HSE “tracing mesothelioma mortality between 1968 and 2011 found some indication that mesothelioma fatality rates in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups, “have not reduced as strongly in women as in men.” Recently published figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicate that there could as many as 400 female mesothelioma fatalities caused by asbestos exposure every year – double the diagnosis rate of the US and EU countries.